How Big Is the American Closet?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Dec. 9 2013 3:11 PM

The American Closet Is Bigger Than We Thought

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Many American men are remaining "discreet."

Photo credit: Lucky Business / Shutterstock.com

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a fascinating—and disheartening—story on the state of closeted gay men in America. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and opinion page contributor, began his research hoping to more accurately measure the number of gay men in the country using sources like Facebook and Match.com, and his estimate—that “at least 5 percent of American men … are predominantly attracted to men”—fits comfortably within the range of 2-to-10 percent that we’re familiar with. But the rest of that paragraph is somewhat surprising (and certainly disappointing):

… and millions of gay men still live, to some degree, in the closet. Gay men are half as likely as straight men to acknowledge their sexuality on social networks. More than one quarter of gay men hide their sexuality from anonymous surveys. The evidence also suggests that a large number of gay men are married to women.
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Stephens-Davidowitz’s piece is worth reading in full, but two points in particular stand out. In comparing outness in states with varying degrees of tolerance (as defined by Nate Silver’s state-by-state estimate of support for same-sex marriage), the research showed, predictably, that less tolerance correlated with fewer openly gay men. But does that mean they’re not actually there, that all the gays of Mississippi, the least tolerant state, have moved away? Probably not:

Are there really so many fewer gay men living in less tolerant states? There is no evidence that gay men would be less likely to be born in these states. Have many of them moved to more tolerant areas? Some have, but Facebook data show that mobility can explain only a small fraction of the difference in the totally out population. I searched gay and straight men by state of birth and state of current residence. … Some gay men do move out of less tolerant states, but this effect is small.

Many more gay men, it seems, stay put and, presumably, suffer to some degree. According to these numbers, the Dan Savage narrative of things “getting better” once one moves to a liberal urban center seems to be more fantasy than fact for many men, whether due to lack of resources or other kinds of ties.

Unfortunately, ill-considered marriages are one of those ties. Using Google search queries and similar tells, Stephens-Davidowitz discovered that the least-tolerant states, like South Carolina and Louisiana, are also those in which wives most often suspect their husbands of being closeted. And who could blame them, what with all the Craigslist encountering going on:

Craigslist lets us look at this from a different angle. I analyzed ads for males looking for “casual encounters.” The percentage of these ads that are seeking casual encounters with men tends to be larger in less tolerant states. Among the states with the highest percentages are Kentucky, Louisiana and Alabama.

One could leave these findings angry at all these men for not coming out, but Stephen-Davidowitz’s concluding anecdote—about a retired professor who has been married to a woman for 40 years and “regrets virtually every one of his major life decisions”—articulates my overwhelming emotion: sadness.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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